When UCLA’s Nick Kern finally looked up, he was halfway to second base and he noticed the umpire was signaling home run.
“It must have been the adrenaline. I just took off and was looking to get on second base. I saw that it was back-spinning to left field and I didn’t put it together that it had gone over the fence until almost second base.”
Kern barely slowed down as his adrenaline floated him around the bases after his eighth-inning, pinch-hit two-run homer gave the UCLA Bruins a 3-1 lead at Utah last Thursday. Not bad for your first collegiate at bat…especially when you are a pitcher.
Summoned from the bullpen while warming up, Kern barely had time to get his batting gloves on before he was in the batter’s box.
Beset by injuries, UCLA’s thin roster had allowed Kern an opportunity and he made sure to swing away.
“The adrenaline is obviously pumping, so I tried to slow it down a little bit and just keep the load slow and see the baseball. The next thing I know I was taking off out of the box.”
It was a day of firsts for the UCLA redshirt freshman reliever. Not only did Kern deliver his first career hit, home run, RBIs and score his first run in his first career at bat, he also entered the game on the mound to try to nail down his first career save. A quick turnaround following his two-out homer forced Kern to try to calm himself.
“That was very difficult. Just not a whole lot of time,” Kern said.
“I tried to get myself under control as quick as possible. It took a couple of pitches. After that first batter, I settled in and it was just another outing.”
Nick Kern was forced into the ninth-inning role due to All-American closer David Berg being out with a bicep strain.
“That’s been great for someone that’s always been there for you and then you get a chance to pick up his spot and pick up the team at the end. It’s a great opportunity and it’s really cool to pick him up,” Kern said. “Lot of guys are really stepping up. Those [bullpen] guys are seeing an opportunity, stepping up and just competing.”
Rather than Berg saving Kern or another reliever’s tail, it has been the rest of the bullpen that has stepped up in the sidewinding junior’s absence.
“It’s a huge load off my back,” Berg said. “I can focus on getting healthy and not rush back too soon. Those guys are doing a hell of a job, stepping up and pitching well. Nick [Kern] has pitched well in different roles, but we all know the ninth inning is a different deal. But he’s taken it in stride and done well.”
It has become a common theme for the injury-ravaged Bruins (22-16, 9-6), who defeated Loyola Marymount Tuesday night with a lineup that was without the starting second baseman, shortstop, third baseman, centerfielder and right fielder from the projected lineup coming into the season. When one person goes down, another person has to step up.
“It’s the way that we go about it,” Berg said. “At end of season, no one is going to look at our record and care that we had injuries.”
Despite all the injuries, UCLA continues to find ways to compete. It has the same conference record, 9-6, as it did last season when the Bruins won the national championship.
“We believe in one another,” Kern said. “Each guy is very prepared so even when someone else comes in, we know that guy can get the job done. We don’t lose any confidence.”
After dropping three straight previous series, the Bruins will try to build on their series win at Utah (thanks to Kern’s heroics in the first game) this weekend when they host crosstown rival USC for a crucial three-game set starting Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. PST.
The Trojans (21-17, 9-9) have won six in a row, including a sweep of Arizona last weekend. It was their first Pac-12 sweep since 2009. USC seems to have shored up its weekend pitching rotation with the inclusion of Brent Wheatley and some mechanical adjustments to Bob Wheatley.
The Trojans held Arizona, the conference’s top hitting team, to four runs on the weekend, including a 1-0, five-hit shutout by Wyatt Strahan on Thursday night and a 2-0, two-hit combined shutout by Bob Wheatley and closer Kyle Davis.
The marked improvements of lefties Bob Wheatley and Kyle Twomey, who pitched 5.2 scoreless innings of relief in USC’s 5-4 extra-inning win on Saturday give head coach Dan Hubbs hope that the team has finally turned the corner and is prepared to make a strong run at the program’s first postseason appearance since 2005.
“We just have to play well,” Hubbs said after sweeping the Wildcats. “When we play well, when we get good starting pitching, we’re going to be in a lot of games. Then it’s a matter of do we get that hit or not.”